‘The Great Misunderstanding’: Alex Niven’s ‘New Model Island’ and post-Corbynism

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This post was co-authored with Jack Kavanagh

As the results of the British general election have made clear, there will be no Labour government in England. Despite inequality rising under the Tories, along with infant mortality, the increasing likelihood that the national health service will be privatised, there is seemingly no appetite for a Labour government in England. For the foreseeable future, there is no end in sight for the horrors the current regime are visiting upon asylum seekers and the poor. To make things worse, the notion that any future leader of the Labour party will have anything like Corbyn’s record on supporting anti-imperialist and anti-racist causes — support for Palestine, opposition to apartheid, statements in support of a United Ireland — is far from assured. But, the activists which have changed the direction of the Labour party have not gone anywhere, and in this sense, the future of Corbynism is yet to be written. Now is a time for stock-taking and adjustment of strategy but before the new common sense has taken shape, it is necessary to identify some deviations among some of Corbyn’s most well-placed cheerleaders, those who will be the theoretical backbone of whatever form struggle now assumes, who have again and again demonstrated their chauvinism and ignorance regarding Ireland and their own countries’ history. Alex Niven’s most recent article in Tribune ‘The Great Unravelling’ is by no means the only example, but nevertheless requires our scrutiny, for its length, prominence within the Corbynist publishing ecosystem and its uncritical reproduction of imperialist logic.

In his article Niven posits that the post-Brexit United Kingdom stands on the brink of breakup into a Four Nations type arrangement, with England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland existing as separate polities governed by separate and democratically elected parliaments with executive power in each jurisdiction. Much of Niven’s proposed reforms assume a forthcoming labour-left government marking the defeat of one-nation toryism, allowing the left to settle accounts with many of the issues regarding competing nationalisms within the UK as part of a broader redistribution of wealth within British society. Rather than framing this forthcoming breakup relative to the dynamism of indigenous regional nationalisms that would, presumably, be the motive force behind such a drive in each of these burgeoning nation states — through parties such as Plaid Cymru, Sinn Féin or the Scottish National Party — the details behind Niven’s perspective remains firmly Anglocentric. In Niven’s mind, these two objectives dovetail neatly, his account of the historical relationship between socialists in England and regional nationalisms reads as follows:

Many socialists will feel a degree of ambivalence about this nationalist narrative. On the one hand, the tradition of leftist sympathy with Scottish, Irish and Welsh national causes is long running and honourable. It has frequently centred on areas of genuine common cause (think of Irish socialist James Connolly’s heroic struggle against British Imperialism, or, more recently, the 2014 Yes campaign for Scottish independence, which indirectly prefigured the grassroots radicalism of Labour’s renewal under Jeremy Corbyn).

Niven experiences significant difficulties in his attempts to wed the objectives of English socialism or the British Labour party with those of these regional nationalisms, especially in Ireland. James Connolly might be a well-known or often cited figure for many British socialists, but many Irish socialists will regard the history of British socialism as one characterised not by mutual sympathy so much as murderous antagonism. It will be remembered that it was the British Labour Party who directed the British Army in some of their most brutal reprisals against Irish revolutionaries in Northern Ireland in the sixties and seventies; the fact that many of those involved in the civil rights movement identified their struggle as continuing one partially initiated by Connolly does not seem to have enhanced their standing to any significant extent with British socialists at the time. There is also limited evidence that English socialists were overly concerned about the plight of Ireland during the Irish War of Independence; the first Labour government in 1924 did nothing to help secure a better solution to the imposed border on the island of Ireland and left Northern Ireland under the control of an increasingly reactionary Unionist government. It would take a seriously distorted reading of the historical record to conclude that British socialism has ever regarded their imperialist interests as secondary to the wishes of the Irish when it has counted.

In the first section of his article Niven outlines how London is to be accommodated within his framework:

A good place to start is by remembering that the basic geo-economic pattern of the islands is not especially national in emphasis. Rather than thinking of a monarchical, conservative ‘United Kingdom’, or alternatively of a triad of small nations arrayed in opposition to quasi-imperial ‘England’, we would do well to grasp that the main structural feature of the archipelago — even allowing for partial Irish autonomy post 1922 — is the towering economic and cultural dominance of London and the south-east of England over all other areas

Niven’s posited solution to British inequality then, is to cognitively map the UK and Ireland by way of John Brannigan’s Archipelagic Modernism (2014), positing an alternative and imaginary geography, as a utopian repudiation of the actually-existing, imposed borders and their attendant histories, in favour of London’s south-easterly megalopolis and an archipelagic remainder. As Nevin is not a historian, it would be unfair to expect a thorough engagement with the historiography of Anglo-Irish relations but even a minimal engagement with this literature would indicate that tribal concerns were always at the forefront of these islands’ shared histories. The Norman Invasion created a new nobility which ended the hegemony of the previously regnant Saxon ruling class. The Hundred Years War in part concerned English aspirations to the French throne, a distinctly nationalistic and proto-imperialist enterprise. Taken together with the War of the Roses, we have three examples of events which were to prove formative for the contemporary British state within which national differences were highly significant factors. This third example is particularly important as both factions were based outside of London and the South East, undermining Nevin’s investment in deep and abiding continuities, wherein London, as a centre of capital accumulation and industry, is primarily responsible for contemporary England’s class-based inequality. That London has accumulated significant amounts of political and financial power since the Industrial Revolution is not in dispute, what Niven’s analysis overlooks is how much of this accumulation has been by dispossession or expropriation of surrounding territories and how much of this cultural dominance has been an outgrowth of this plunder and accompanying slaughter. The notion that England at large is somehow subject to a core-periphery dynamic in a similar way that actually colonised nations are is ridiculous, especially when within living memory police units have engaged in counter-insurgency techniques against ‘British’ subjects in Wales and Northern Ireland. There is no recent evidence as far as we are aware, of London-based militias and paramilitary units shooting dissenters in York, Teeside or Newcastle; the dynamics in operation here are clearly very different and have more to do with the recent effects of globalisation, de-industrialisation and neo-liberal economics. All of these should be criticised, but not on the assumption that they culminate in the same separatist dynamics which are present in Northern Ireland, Wales or Scotland. The colonial context is a difference that makes a difference. One which Niven seems wholly ignorant of.

It is one of the more baffling features of Niven’s analysis that he envisions the transition from an ‘outmoded Four Nations’ model to a two nations model as frictionless. We would venture to suggest that from an Irish perspective, the less power London has over the Irish economy, the better. Niven could, if he were so inclined, have identified some of the contradictions surrounding the economic basis of the Irish Republic — a polity nominally committed to Republican values but characterised from independence by agrarian state-based industry, followed by a modernising period characterised the opening up of the state to Foreign Direct Investment, leaving us now subject to a significant extent to the demands of the bond markets and an inscrutable network of democratically unaccountable private shareholders. This is a shame, as such an account might provide some form of roadmap for non-allied blocs of newly independent states coming together in order to develop some fiscal alternative to Anglo-American hegemony, but his reference to Irish independence post-1922 as ‘partial’ is the closest he gets to such an analysis, which is either an awkward reference to partition, an awkward reference to the capture of nation states by financial capital, or ignorance that Ireland is in fact a separate jurisdiction. Niven writes:

While the London-centric unionist establishment propounds the difference-denying fiction of ‘Britishness’, and nationalists counter this by avowing various postmodern dreams of nationhood (from Scottish Independence to more dubious calls to reawaken ‘English identity’), socialist energies would be far better directed at envisioning a completely new civic architecture, one that would emphatically shift the balance of power away from the hypertrophied south-east corner of the islands.

To push all the ideas relating to an independent state into a box labelled ‘post-modernism’ is juvenile and profoundly ignorant. It does an extensive disservice to the history and actually-existing stances of the various parties who argue to varying extents for independence. None of these parliamentary vehicles are in any sense beyond criticism, but to dismiss them as freewheeling semiotic constructs or indeed, to subtly conflate them with contemporary manifestations of British nationalism, without even going to the trouble of providing some sense of their history, the imperatives attached to their emergence within their respective environments, is to wrap oneself in the butcher’s apron, albeit from a spurious ‘left’ position.

Nevin’s solution amounts to the creation of a second urban ‘centre of gravity’ in order to undermine London and the home counties’ predominance. Within this framework, Ireland and the United Kingdom would be re-divided, with jurisdictions of Ireland and the UK becoming a fringe of Northern England, the North-West Triangle, while the South-East Corner would consist of London and the home counties. This culminates in the creation of two new states; that this would necessitate the abrogation of Irish sovereignty goes unmentioned. Niven’s disclaiming this concept as science-fictional also does little to change the fact that were this to be implemented that it would represent one of the most blatantly neo-imperial concepts to emerge from the UK since the end of the British Empire. An English-dominated ‘North-West Triangle’ would merely serve to re-create the same structural imbalances which are now bringing about the break-up of the UK in the first place, such as a gross imbalance between the nationalities, poor infrastructure in the periphery and the overruling of an active nationalism within Ireland and Scotland, both of which would be implacably opposed to this new construct. Niven’s piece also contains no serious attempt to reckon with the existence of the unionist population of Northern Ireland, who view themselves as British, and celebrate their shared history as descendants of an imperialist project to subjugate the indigenous population and expropriate their wealth. How are they to be accommodated within this framework? The prioritisation of English inequality over and above nationalist demands is indicative of Niven’s lack of understanding of English imperialism. Why should Scotland, Wales and Ireland be responsible for English inequality? How would preventing the break-up of the UK by forming new nation states help the plight of the working class, other than if this border was to be an apparatus designed to facilitate further expropriation and subjugation? As he himself notes, due to how populations would be divided by this border, this would be an English-led and dominated union, by default. Leaving aside the myriad of geographic and physical complications to such as questions as to where the border would be or the likelihood of this triggering some kind of armed conflict in certain areas, the fatal assumption here is that the Republic of Ireland, a sovereign, constitutional state would be forced into a ill-fitting coalition of nations and regions willingly. This fundamental lack of awareness that permeates this piece is one of the worst examples of well-meaning Corbyn supporters attempting to devise a third way, when one is not possible, necessary or required. Nevin’s uncritical reproduction of imperialist logic is often striking for the matter-of-fact tone in which it is expressed:

a historically inclined, nostalgic and brute nationalist movement towards independence seems to me far less preferable than a model which attempts to break the back of Westminster Anglocentrism more enduringly, by nurturing the potential of the northern and western parts of the islands to form some new manner of alliance, in which regional-national units work together to create an alternative power base to the south-east.

In concluding, we might consider Niven’s introductory paragraph once again, where we locate his mission statement to devise a ‘third way’ between nationalism and unionism:

Without dismissing the claims of small-nation independence completely, and without succumbing to forms of Anglo-British unionism that will probably always tend towards reaction and imperialism, might there be other, more daring ways of conceptualising the so-called British Isles, beyond resuscitating the imagined national communities of the past?

In simple terms, the answer to this is no. There is no magic solution to centuries of uneven imperium. We might begin with granting nation states the right and the choice to determine their own destinies, even if these are not what residents of the former colonial state wishes. For many in England the past three years have been an eye-opening experience, as they begin to realise that Ireland is not willing to accept English threats in order to save them from themselves.

It is alternately enraging and depressing to see Corbyn supporters celebrate or share this work on its publication in Tribune, or in the form of a book by Repeater essentially move through the same sequence of behaviours, albeit in a hypothetical format. The only advice one can give to these people is to spend more time outside of England and realise that the ‘other’ nations should be allowed to determine their separate futures, without interference and to seriously countenance the notion that Corbynism, whatever form it ultimately takes, might do best by Ireland by leaving it alone.

This postscript was very much influenced by conversations with a couple of people who know who they are and will receive they due credit and citation if they want it

POSTSCRIPT: Getting a handle on Niven’s comprehension of the north of England may require relation back to the intellectual lineage in which he consistently locates himself throughout his book New Model Island, the work of Mark Fisher and those of the labour left who have invoked his name in their cultural diagnoses of the past few years. Fisher’s grasp of the north is best accounted for by looking to his reckoning with The Fall, not to mention Burial, the left-leaning and often quite experimental public-service broadcasting of the seventies in Ghosts of my Life. What comes through here is an attempt to formulate a late proletarian modernism, the emphasis is on the haute-melancholia of the outsider, shoring up resources of hope, holding out the possibility for some future in which their component parts or structures of feeling may prove galvanising against the wreckage produced by the Thatcherite consensus. Likewise Owen Hatherley, we see Pulp’s coded class warfare, social democratic municipal modernism and voices from Mass Observation as against the cultural and material legacies of new Labour: PFI schemes, Britpop, austerity nostalgia. Finally, Joe Kennedy’s emphasis on Italian immigrants bringing a rich history of cultural diversity to the Welsh vallies, readings of the crowd in postwar British literature, the popular modernism of community-based football clubs against the imagining of the British working class as white white van men painting their faces with the St. George’s cross.

These are the vaguest of sketches, and not definitive, but the governing concept and most crucially, the fatal flaw, remains the same. When the confluence of forces, social composition have changed, things around you have moved on and you continue to treat the masses from behind the adopted mediation of ‘culture’, you will make basic errors in your analyses. The potency of Fisher’s hypothesis was its point in time, the there is no alternative to cuts to public spending, privatisation of public services; when the Liberal Democrats had gotten into government and passed student fees perhaps this defeatism was plausible. Perhaps Fisher’s work was required to roll that particular stone up that particular hill, perhaps history overtook him, but I think it’s fair to say that from where we stand now, if administrated austerity and centre-left parties selling out the least socially mobile sections of their voting blocs are all that the future holds we may count ourselves lucky. The utopian and anti-realist position is now definitively in the hands of the right; the world is theirs to shape, for the moment.

The problem with Fisher and the approach his work has given rise to is the problem that besets all utopian thought; it does not present a viable strategy. If the disappearance of the red wall is anything to go by, it seems as though these utopian schemas erected on the north and by extension the working class were not rooted in reality and if they do not serve a strategic import, if it doesn’t get us closer to solving the problem than we were before, we should be asking ourselves the question as to what good are they, really? This putting of the cart before the horse has led to the Labour party left allowing John Harris to win the argument. The necessity and focus should now be on the definitive abandonment of the long march through the institutions, the end of the Corbynism as an offshoot of academia. Return to the places you present yourself as a representative of and begin to organise. if you absolutely must construct theories, leave the resources of hope and choose the resources of action adequate to the moment. How do you organise in a service economy? What have tenants’ unions achieved? What are your rights when you’ve been arrested and when they’re taken from you, what then? These are the questions which need answering and also the question I have seen no left outlet or publisher take on in any significant way and this needs to change.

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